Foreign and Female—Is Teaching English Abroad Safe For Single Women?

By Beth Green []

You’re a woman abroad, someone who knows that teaching English as a Foreign Language is an interesting, thrilling and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But is it also a dangerous experience?

In my view, no. It’s not.

Not if you’re smart—and hey, you found this blog, which shows both smarts and class.

I’ve lived abroad much of my life, and have been teaching English as a Foreign Language for the past ten years. In that time, I’ve never felt that my life abroad was more dangerous than it would have been if I had stayed back home in the USA.

But, the TV! The news always shows terrible things happening abroad!

Unfortunately, whatever country we’re living in, we see other countries only through the lens of world news. Think about it, do you find the following bulletin newsworthy?

“Tonight, most of the world’s population went to work and back safely, helped little old ladies cross the street whenever they had a chance, and spent many more hours on Facebook than they needed to.”

Not hardly. We need to know the threats that are out there, of course we do! But in hearing about the ferries that sink, the trains that derail, the sickos who do awful things, often we forget to think about the reverse. Yes, some places will have bad things happen there. But what about all the bad things that didn’t happen?

Now, if you are a woman wishing to live and travel abroad and have, as I do, a conscientious family full of warm-hearted but not-very-well-traveled people, you’re probably going to have a lot of conversations that go like this:

Family member: So, where are you going exactly?

You: (Names country) I’m so excited! Squee!

Family member: (Gasps) But, no! I read just yesterday that four women were kidnapped, strapped to a burning chunk of space rock and then (lowers voice) executed by fire ants.

You: (Uncomfortably.) Yeah.

Family member: So, why don’t you stay here where it’s safe?

You: (Wanting to bring up all of the terrorist alerts, mass murders and other nefariousness that happens in your home country, but being too polite) Uh, well—hey! Look! Shiny things…

The thing that I think people forget when they want to head overseas, or when they have family members who want to go abroad to live, is that people are people, no matter where you go. You’re going to meet some bad people, some good people, some people who might be good now but will be bad later. Some people who will seem bad at the moment, but really it’s just a miscommunication—he wasn’t really trying to steal your backpack out of the bus, he was a porter paid to take it to the transfer vehicle! (True story, by the way.).

That’s not to say that you might have an unfortunate experience while teaching abroad. It could happen, though it’s very unlikely. So, here are some steps you can take to make sure that the chance of anything bad happening to you is very unlikely indeed:

1. Hit the books. Research! Research the country where you’re going to live, research the cultures you’re likely to be around while living there.

The U.S. Department of State maintains a website [] of really terrifying tidbits of things that have befallen Americans abroad in each country around the world. Read that (or your own home country’s equivalent), and then balance it by searching out blogs and online forums where people living in your target country post about life there. See if you are undertaking an acceptable risk. Know before you go if you’re moving to a country that has a high incidence of pickpocketing but low violent crime or a place where barfights start at the drop of a hat but everybody leaves their doors unlocked at night. Once you’ve identified the risks you’re taking, it will be easy to decide if those risks are acceptable.

2. Protect your privacy. When you move to a new country, you will want to make a lot of new contacts fast. The urge to share everything you do and everything about you with all the great people you meet may be overwhelming, but keep your head about what personal information you allow people to know. Don’t give everyone your email address and your phone number and your home address and let them see photocopies of your passport and friend them on Facebook right away, and…

Identity theft is possible, so protect yourself abroad as you would at home. Also, telling total strangers where you live?  Unless he or she is a cop or taxi driver, that’s not a wise choice for anyone living alone in any country—man or woman!

3. Dress like the locals. Wear conservative clothing for your first few days or weeks in a foreign country. We all know that what you wear shouldn’t matter—but the truth of it is, to the wrong person, sometimes it does.

If local women dress more conservatively than you normally do, then consider adding some attractive things to your wardrobe that help you blend in. When I lived in China, I stopped wearing tank tops because after a few weeks I noticed I was, despite the heat, the only woman in my city with bare shoulders. That turned out to be a simple fashion trend, and a few years later spaghetti straps were in. But I don’t regret being cautious. On the other hand, when I lived in Europe, local ladies went topless in the park in the summer, so I’m not saying that women teaching abroad should always shroud themselves in shapeless fabrics. Just be smart, and realize that people from different backgrounds than yours may not look deeper than your appearance to make judgments about what you are like and what they can get away with.

4. Invest in theft-proof handbags. Many travel clothing designers offer bags (which look like regular purses) that are hard for pickpockets to open. I have two models, both of which have lightweight wire mesh hidden inside the fabric and slash-proof straps. The zippers lock, they’re lightweight and durable, and they look completely unobtrusive. Of course, I have fun bags too, but you can bet which bag I’m using when taking my paycheck to the bank or carrying around my passport.

5. Keep abreast of current affairs. Keep an eye on local news when you’re abroad. If there’s a major disaster or event happening where you are—or even in the same region where you are—you want to know about it before your family hears about it back home. You want to call them and let them know you’re OK before they bombard your email inbox with anxious queries as to your health and whereabouts. You’ll also want to know about any growing risks in your region, and anyway, keeping abreast of local happenings will just give you that much more to talk about with your students and all the great friends you’ll make when teaching abroad.

 TED’s Tips™ #1: Know before you go. Equally applicable to men and women, researching a country and the risks you might face while living there is a simple, wise move.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Be respectful to local cultures. You should be learning from the culture you are in, and the only thing you should be teaching them is English, not your world view. Even if you dislike certain things about the culture you’re in, remember you’re a visitor. If you respect their culture, you’ll be less at risk from harassment and other threats.

TED’s Tips™ #3:  Cultural cues can be different from what you are familiar with “back home”.  Be careful and cautious at first and observe the locals, they know when and where to be careful.  If in doubt, always play it extra safe until you really know the local scene.

Teaching Internships in China









The Great Wall, the Giant Panda and You: Teaching English in China

Guest written by Beth Green

Do you want to teach English to dedicated, hard-working students? Explore one of the world’s oldest civilizations? Have a million and one stories to tell when you do go back home?

In short, I’m asking—do you want to teach English in China?

The People’s Republic of China is now one of the world’s top destinations for English teachers—if you doubt me, just check any online job board.

On the other hand, China has a reputation for being a hard place to live—and newbie teachers going abroad would be unwise to ignore some of the stories coming from the Middle Kingdom.

So, what’s the real dirt on whether it’s a good idea to teach English in China? Read on for my two cents:

The Good

●  Teaching Contracts in China Offer More Perks.  When you take a job in China, or do an internship like the one at, you usually get your housing paid for by your employer. Other perks may or may not include paying for your utilities, cable TV, internet service, Chinese lessons, phone bill, working lunches and travel bonuses. While there are other positions in the world that offer nice sweeteners like these, the proportion in China seems to be way higher.

●  They Won’t Mind If This Is Your First Job. Chinese public schools and training centers—even universities—are often open to giving greenhorn English teachers jobs that in other countries could only be had by more experienced educators. This may not be true of all cities, competition for teaching jobs in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai is fierce, but the broad-reaching demand for English instruction in China exceeds supply of teachers, especially in rural areas.

●  See History and History in the Making. China is just a cool place to be. It’s got thousands and thousands of years of history as a civilization—the Great Wall was started about 700 BC, and the Terracotta Warriors were buried about 200 BC—and its contemporary culture is changing about as fast as I can type this. While fast-paced modernization coupled with dusty relics won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, no one can say it’s boring.

The Bad

●   Chinese Language is a Puzzle. In English we call gibberish “Greek.” In Spanish they call it “Chinese.” The Spaniards may be closer to the truth. China has more than five official languages and dialects spanning more than eight language families. The two big languages we hear about in the West are Mandarin and Cantonese, however even if you’re working in a place that speaks one of these two, there are dialects to contend with. Of course, you don’t need to speak Chinese to teach English. However, being in a rural area or anonymous second- or third-tier city without a scratch of language can be very isolating for a teacher who’s come abroad for the first time. Extra effort is needed for even simple daily transactions. The good news is, most schools will lend you a helper (maybe a colleague) to translate for you while you’re getting set up in a new town and job, and finding people willing to help you learn basic Chinese is easy.

●  Don’t Drink The Water, But What About Breathing the Air? Big cities in Asia just don’t have the same clean, fresh air that North Americans, Europeans and Australians are used to. Attitudes to environmental safety standards in China are very different than you will see even in more developed countries in Asia. Slowly, more is being done to make Chinese cities a healthier place to live—but there’s no guarantee your city will have adopted these new measures.

●  The Giving and Losing of “Face.” It doesn’t matter what country you go to as an English teacher, you will find some cultural differences between there and your native land. Expect to feel a bit of culture shock wherever you go. But in China, many teachers say they have experienced much higher degrees of culture shock because of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. One example is the importance of Chinese “face”: sometimes people will not concede a point simply because they don’t want to lose face for having been wrong. Or, they might say “yes” to something because they don’t want to lose face (or make you lose face!) by saying “no.” Another important cultural stumbling block to take into account before looking for work in China is that Caucasian or white-looking teachers often are given preferential hiring treatment at Chinese schools. If you are of Asian, African or other non-white origin, or if you even might look it, then you will probably be asked to explain your family history (proving that yes, you are a native English speaker) before you get a job.

Obviously, these are just a few of the common “good” and “bad” points that English teachers observe when they go to China. For most people, teaching in China—or even doing a short stint, as through—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will treasure the rest of their lives.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t take a job in China on a whim. Research a little about the culture and situation before you decide to go. Like anything, it can be a brilliantly wonderful experience, or not.

TED’s Tips™ #2: If you do decide to go to China, try to bone up on some Mandarin before you go. While you won’t need local language skills for your classroom, even a few words will help you settle in to your new life abroad.

Teaching Internships in China







Taking the Bad with the Good

What if things start going wrong while you are overseas?

As in all careers, sometimes teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) find things going pear-shaped.

You might be in a job you dislike or shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers you can’t stand. Your new host culture, country or city may make you uncomfortable.

Basically, all the things that might go bad with a job in your home country can go wrong abroad as well. In fact, there are even more things that can go wrong.

Luckily for us teachers, it’s not that hard to get a new job if you need to. However, you should know that some countries have stringent, difficult procedures for changing companies/employers/schools and you may even need to cross the border to another country to do a “visa run” or even seek work in yet another country.

Make a Plan for your Worst Case Scenario

I find it good advice to plan for the best and prepare for the worst. While all of us are at risk of finding ourselves in a bad situation one day, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Avoid potentially difficult situations before they start by educating yourself about common pitfalls before you start a new job. Reading and following my advice in the “Job Hunt” sections of this blog may be a good place to start.

In the occasion that things do go bad, there are two important things that you may want to have prepared: a return ticket home or to a third country plus enough ready cash to be able to survive for a few months of unemployment while lining up your next job.

Many people will say that this is unnecessary; however I dislike hitting my friends and family up for loans so I give financially conservative advice in this case.

If you have three months’ worth of money available to you, as well as a plane ticket, then you’ll have the time and resources to plan what you’ll do next. You’ll also be better off when you do start your next job and won’t be so desperate for that first paycheck. In an ideal world, it’s best to have six months’ worth of cash. But realistically, most people don’t have that much money to draw out at a moment’s notice.

When Culture is to Blame

Whenever a problem stemming from cultural differences pops up, I try to stay cool and work things out before I take a more drastic step. Almost everyone will find themselves embroiled in some kind of problem relating to cultural gaps when they are first overseas. It’s easy for miscommunication to occur, and culture shock commonly makes things hard for a few months. In fact, I’d say some of my very most hair-pullingly frustrating moments abroad have been because of quite simple cultural/language misunderstandings.

For example, once a university dean I had just paid a compliment to thought I was insulting him! Unfortunately for me (and for our good relationship) my positive comment, when directly translated, had a negative meaning in his language.

Another time I had a supervisor who just couldn’t tell me “no.”  It was culturally impossible for him to say “no,” to something for which I had asked, so he said “yes.” I didn’t realize that, in his culture, I should have picked up on his reluctance rather than his words until much later—when everyone felt uncomfortable.

If you follow the advice on this website, and research your new position well, you will probably be able to avoid nine out of ten bad situations you come across.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Have a rainy day fund. Keep some money aside for that “oh no!” moment and don’t forget to make a Plan B and even a Plan C, as discussed elsewhere on the blog. If you do this then, no matter what your problem, you can take off in search of a better situation if you need to.

TED’s Tips™ #2: If you don’t have a nest-egg set aside before you go overseas, make it a goal to set it aside in your first year or two abroad.

Teaching Internships in China